Divine “unshatterable” action and human “shatterable” activations

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 19

The previous post saw Tolkien’s raising the problem of God’s causality with respect to evil, and suggested that his depiction of the problem in his fiction, such as it is, is broadly consistent with St. Thomas’s solution. In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas explains that, in voluntary things, whenever there is an evil effect, it is always the result of some pre-existing evil in the agent, specifically, some pre-existing defect in the will of the agent, so that when the agent acts, “it does not actually subject itself to its proper rule” (ST 1.49.1 ad 3).[1] Thus, Thomas implicitly distinguishes two dimensions to every evil action: first, there is the action itself, caused by the will itself, both of which, taken by themselves, are good (as created, existing things); second, there is the specific defect in the action, which is the result of a corresponding defect in the will causing the action. Now God in no way, says Aquinas, is the cause of the defects in the will of voluntary agents, since God is altogether perfect and thus incapable of actively producing an imperfection in the will (ST 1.49.1). Having parsed out the evil action in this manner, Thomas is able similarly to parse out the responsibility for it: “whatever there is of being and action in a bad action is reduced to God as the cause, whereas whatever defect is in it is not caused by God, but by the deficient secondary cause” (ST 1.49.2 ad 2).[2] In an oft-cited illustration Thomas compares God’s creative power by which he gives being to an otherwise evil action with the “moving power” of a lame leg: while the moving power is the cause of the leg’s motion, it is not the cause of the leg’s motion being a limping motion. What causes the limp is not the leg’s native moving power but rather the defective curvature of the lame leg. In this illustration, the lameness of the leg is analogous to the “curvature” or defect of the sinning agent’s will. In a passage that could almost double as a commentary on Tolkien’s statement to Hastings that God “guarantees” even “sinful acts” with the “reality of Creation,” Leo Elders explains Thomas’s argument this way:

It is true that God is the cause of the content of being in any human act, just as all beings exist by participating in the First Being. But a human act is not God’s action and a human choice is not God’s choice. God gives only the entitative content and occurrence of an action without being the cause which does something through this action. Hence God is [in] no way, not even per accidens, the cause who commits this action and so he is in no way the cause of the moral evil. He permits sin to take place in that he grants his causal support to the will to enable it to perform an act, despite its deviation from the rule of reason. The person who performs the evil action is per accidens the cause of the privation of subordination to moral law. To clarify this St. Thomas gives an example: if a cripple walks, the cause of his crippled gait is not his power to move, but his leg which is too stiff or too short. Therefore all of the entity in an evil action goes back to God as to its First Cause whereas the privation which renders it evil, comes from the acting person who does not conform himself to moral law.[3]

Jacques Maritain explains this same argument, albeit in terms of a distinction between what e calls the “unshatterable divine action” of creation and the “shatterable activations” of the individual human will, a metaphor evocative of the images of kindling fire and splintering light at the heart of Tolkien’s mythology. According to Maritain, the creative “activations or motions” given by the First Cause to his individual free agents

contain within themselves, in advance, the permission or possibility of being rendered sterile if the free existent [agent] which receives them takes the first initiative of evading them, of not-acting and not-considering, or nihilating under their touch… [B]efore the unshatterable divine action, by which the will to good of creative Liberty infallibly produces its effect in the created will, the divine activations received by the free existent must first be shatterable activations.

            It depends solely upon ourselves to shatter them by making, upon our own deficient initiative, that thing called nothing (or by nihilating).[4]

The soul or will, in short, is like a window pane or, to use another image shared by Tolkien and Maritain, a “prism”: the light it receives is God’s creative, activating, “moving” power; the light it admits or which shines through the window is the actions of the soul. Should the light it admits become shattered (as distinguished, say, from its being beautifully refracted through the sub-creative act), it is the fault, not of the light it receives, but of the cracked or shattered soul or will that receives it.


[1] “Sed in rebus voluntariis defectus actionis a voluntate actu deficienti procedit, inquantum non subiicit se actu suae regulae.”

[2] “Et similiter quidquid est entitatis et actionis in actione mala, reducitur in Deum sicut in causam: sed quod est ibi defectus, non causatur a Deo, sed ex causa secunda deficient.”

[3] Elders, The Metaphysics of Being, 135.

[4] Maritain, Existence and the Existent, trans. Galantiere and Phelan, 100-1.

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